Many facets of women’s football in Europe’s most western country are on the rise. In this debut piece for Próxima Jornada, I will analyse various areas of improvement in the women’s game. Attendances, the new league format and the development of the Seleção Feminino (Portugal’s National Womens Team) are all on the agenda. This rise has, of course, been halted by the Coronavirus crisis. However, the improving state of women’s football in Portugal reflects many countries around the world whose populations are also gravitating towards women’s football.
This season, due to the pandemic, games have been behind closed doors and unfortunately without the presence of supporters, except for at a handful of games. However, in 2019 the record attendance for a women’s match was broken 3 times. On the 30th March 2019, almost two years ago, SL Benfica faced Sporting CP, in the shadow of the Torre de Belém at Estádio de Restelo. The game was for the Vicente Lucas Trophy and saw 15,204 come through the turnstiles on a sunny afternoon in Lisbon. The game, billed as Todos Moçambique!, was a solidarity match in support of the recent Cyclone Idai disaster in Mozambique.
A Growing Appetite
Six months later, another record was broken, this time for most fans in an official match with 12,812. This match was again between the two Lisboa heavyweights Sporting and Benfica, this time in a league match. The Estádio da Luz was the venue for the inaugural official Dérbi de Lisboa. In the game, Benfica ran out as 3-0 winners. This match can be considered a watershed moment in the Campeonato Feminino, as it was the second time the attendance record was broken. The top three highest crowds were all recorded in 2019, which epitomises the public’s growing appetite for the women’s game. The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a halt to fan engagement and the sports growth but the sky’s the limit for the women’s game when we return to normal society. It is poignant that the game with the largest gate is a league game as it paves the way for more league matches with high attendances, particularly now that two out of the traditional Os Três Grandes, the big three clubs and the teams with the most financial muscle and best resources are involved. FC Porto at the time of writing still do not have a women’s side.
Attendances rising also coincided with a surge in participation from female players in football and futsal. 15.1% more women played the beautiful game in 2020 than in 2019. This trend is also reflected between the years 2018 and 2019, where participation rose by just under 1000 players. Broadening out from when records began in 2011, there has been an 83.5% increase in participation growing from 6,012 females who played football to 11,038 footballers in 2020. To boost numbers further, the FPF must continue improving and providing facilities where women and young girls can play football. The recent successes of the national team will have no doubt played a contributing factor.
The National Team
The Seleção Feminina had not really taken off until around 2017, it was at this point that they qualified for their first ever major tournament when they made it to the UEFA Women’s European Championships in 2017. The side finished ultimately finished bottom of Group D but it is worth noting they finished on the same points as second placed Spain, who qualified over Portugal on goal difference. The side is now looking to appear in back-to-back European Championships for the first time. The final hurdle is a playoff tie against Russia. The side has also climbed the UEFA rankings and is now ranked 17th. A reason behind this development is the improvement in the standard of the Campeonato Feminino. Many of the national team’s players start for SL Benfica and Sporting CP meaning, they are playing at a higher level than before and have the chance to train and compete with better players, in addition to these Portugal based players, the Seleção also has the likes of Jéssica Silva, who plays for Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, the side who have won the last FIVE consecutive UEFA Women’s Champions League trophies. Other players based abroad are captain and legend Cláudia Neto who plays for Fiorentina in Italy, Aston Villa’s Diana Silva and Vanessa Marques who plays her club football for Ferencváros.
Campeonato Feminino has become more competitive and intriguing over the last few years. In the past four seasons, there have been three different champions. In contrast, in Liga NOS, only Benfica and FC Porto have been winners since 2002. However, this was not always the case, 1° de Dezembro once won 11 consecutive Campeonato Feminino titles. This spell of total dominance came to an end in 2011-2012, a few years later, the FPF decided to invite all Primeira Liga teams to participate. A new league was formed and the rest is history.
Additionally, due to COVID-19, the league has taken on a different look this year. The 12-team league has been replaced with 20 teams and now has two stages. These 20 teams are split into a Norte Serie and Sul Serie, featuring 10 teams from each. During the first stage, the teams play each other once. This then forms a table, the top four, from both Serie’s, progress to a new league compiled of the top teams who compete for the title. The remaining teams stay in their individual series, but they are now in relegation groups. The bottom two teams from both the Norte and Sul Serie’s are automatically relegated to the second division, with the third and fourth place teams going into a playoff for the final relegation spot. Complicated? Yes. More competitive? Certainly. Teams now need to fight for every place rather than play traditional mid-table ‘friendly’ matches, where there is no real threat or relegation or the title to fight for. Contrastingly to the run-away leaders Sporting in the men’s game, in Campeonato Feminino, there are four teams within three points of each other in the top division. In the relegation leagues, there is everything still to play for.
Benfica and Braga have won the last two editions of the League, meaning they have the chance to qualify for the Women’s Champions League. This season Benfica were eliminated from the UEFA Women’s Champions League by the formidable Chelsea, who had at the time not lost a game in the WSL and have since gone on to lose just one match. As a result of Benfica’s progress in the WCL, it meant Portuguese teams had managed to achieve back-to-back appearances in the Round of 32 of the illustrious competition after Braga were knocked out by last season’s finalists PSG. The nation’s only other representative was Athlético Ouriense in 2014.
More Work To Be Done
Evidently, there is work still to be done to catch up to the WSL, D1F (France) and Primera División (Spain), but there are very promising signs. FC Porto still not having a women’s team is a concern given their financial infrastructure and world prominence. The most pleasing aspect in regards to women’s football in Portugal is the increase in popularity among players. The more players inspired to play will bring more high-quality footballers through the academies and onto the senior stage. The success of the national team and the league is extremely inspirational to all watching across the world. The numbers are clearly going in the right direction, but it is the role of the FPF to invest in women’s football post coronavirus and provide the facilities and structure for it to flourish. However, I will not end on this sour note. The FPF can be proud of the progress made over the last 10 years. The next step has to be to get the women’s national team into a World Cup and of course, in the short-term qualify for back-to-back European Championships.
by Oliver Thomas